FEMA and UC Berkeley recently announced a plan to clear-cut approximately 80,000 trees in the Berkeley and Oakland hills. The agency has released an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) draft, in which it cites the potential of “substantial fire danger” due to “hot, dry winds” – the same conditions which resulted in the deadly Oakland hills fire of 1991. The plan would effectively remove non-native species, many of them fully-mature eucalyptus, Monterey pine, and acacias, from the the Claremont and Strawberry Canyon areas, replacing the trees with wood chips, while dumping hundreds of gallons of toxic herbicides to prevent the return of non-native vegetation. UC Berkeley officials say clear-cutting the trees will result in the return of native vegetation, including bay laurel, buckeye, hazelnut, maple, and oak trees.
Critics of the plan, however, contend that the plan could actually have the opposite effect intended – actually increasing the chance of wildfire in the area. According to the Million Trees Blog, clear-cutting on that scale will result in tons of dead, dry wood onto bare ground, in effect littering the area with kindling; the elimination of shade and fog drip which naturally moistens the ground and reduces fire risk; destroying windbreaks which hinder the spread of wildfires; and increasing the chances of Sudden Oak Death, thereby contributing more dead wood to the area.
Million Trees also pointed out that the project will release hundreds of thousands of tons of harmful carbon dioxide into the air, “thereby contributing to climate change”; create a public safety hazard “by dousing our public lands with thousands of gallons of toxic herbicide”; likely lead to erosion; and won’t necessarily guarantee native vegetation will grow back.
As the East Bay Express recently reported, URS Corp., a former consultant on the project, maintains that, “based on conditions observed during site visits in April 2009, current understory species such as English ivy, acacia, vinca, French broom, and Himalayan blackberry would likely be the first to recover and recolonize newly disturbed areas once the eucalyptus removal is complete.”
The Express goes on to state that, “While the removal of eucalyptus, in particular, would reduce the risk of catastrophic fires driven by climate conditions in the area, the risk of fuel-driven fires is unknown. That’s because URS Corp believes that because UC has no plans for re-planting the area, all different types of vegetation may sprout up after the project is completed, including native and nonnative grasslands, chaparral, nonnative shrub/scrub communities, and oak-bay forests. And each one of those vegetation types carry with it different fire conditions.” Additionally, the Million Trees blog says, prescribed burns “will pollute the air and contribute to the risk of wildfire, endangering lives.”
Keeping in mind that deadly wildfires are actually fairly rare – there hasn’t been one in the Oakland hills since 1991, and that fire wasn’t fueled by trees, but by house fires– there’s also the question of whether these projects represent the best use of federal funds. Furthermore, questions have been raised about UC’s agenda. According to the Express, “UC’s 2020 Long Range Development Plan includes the possibility of building faculty housing and a campus retreat center at its Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve study area.”
While Urban Releaf recognizes the fire hazards non-native species pose, we have concerns about the project, which does not include a reforestation plan. For one thing, Oakland is in dire need of more trees, not less. According to the California Department of Forestry, Oakland’s tree canopy is currently as low as 12 percent. Cutting 60,000 trees in the Oakland hills could result in a domino effect, increasing the urban heat island effect in the flatlands significantly – resulting in higher health risks among poor and minority communities.
As Urban Releaf’s certified aborist Jim Gillespie explains, the adverse impacts of the proposed plan are many and could result in “drastic changes in local ecosystems” from the reversal of the carbon sink, increased chance of erosion, and toxic herbicide “making its way into the water table and air travel on windy days.” Gillespie notes that while “fire is a natural part of forest ecosystems and though these trees are clearly a hazard, there are other ways to mitigate.”
According to Urban Releaf Executive Director Kemba Shakur, “A mitigation plan is needed to offset the devastating effects of poor air quality, water quality, and impact on birds, wildlife, etc. We are also calling for more detailed studies to determine the measureable impacts of deforestation on the urban heat island effect in Oakland’s flatlands.”
“The loss of a significant amount of trees and the benefits they provide, should be offset by planting new trees,” added Program Manager Kevin Jefferson.
As a mitigation for the draft EIR, we recommend:
- Instituting a Replacement Tree criteria
- Replacing trees according to the criteria
- Educating the community about the benefits of Urban Forestry
- Increasing fire management of trees through an increase in technology and tree maintenance
Without a reforestation plan which plants native trees — and, ideally, includes community involvement, inter-agency cooperation, and creates green jobs — Urban Releaf cannot with clear conscience support the FEMA/UCB tree-cutting plan as is. The possibility of increased air and water quality hazards could exasperate existing issues for East Bay residents in the communities we serve. Instead, we call for increased federal, state, and local resources to be allocated to urban communities for the planting of trees, as mandated by AB32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and for FEMA, the City of Oakland, and UC Berkeley to support our Million-Tree Initiative. The deadline for public comment on the proposed plan is June 17; comments can be made here: http://ebheis.cdmims.com/Home.aspx